"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, December 18, 2014

If Students Do Not Do Well, We Must Have Bad Teachers

The 2014 evaluation of teachers in the state of New York has been recently made public. More than 90 percent of teachers in the state are considered either effective or highly effective educators. This percentage runs in stark contrast with the percentage of students in New York reaching proficient levels in standardized exams. Only 35 percent of students in New York are considered proficient in math and only 30 percent in English Language Arts. Indeed there is a sea of difference between 90 and 30. It is not surprising then to read serious doubts against how teachers are evaluated as illustrated in the image below (taken from the New York Post):

The disbelief comes mainly from the assumption that there is an exclusive, that is, one-on-one cause and effect relationship between teacher quality and learning outcomes. If someone believes that the only factor that affects how students perform in exams is the teacher then the above ratings of teachers in New York compared against how the students perform truly become incomprehensible. This is unfortunate since the news that most teachers in New York are seen as effective should be actually good. It ought to be welcomed with a sigh of relief and not disbelief. Sadly, there are loud voices out there that tend to blame the lackluster performance of students in standardized exams to ineffective teachers. And to these voices, the results of the recent evaluation only mean one thing - the evaluation is wrong.

There are other factors (oftentimes, these are much more important than teacher quality) that influence learning. One simply has to glance, for example, at an article written by Willingham in 2012 o realize this truth:

Willingham's answer to the above question is shown below:

The New York evaluation of teachers only addresses the teacher's side. The evaluation does not say that ninety percent of teachers in New York can magically make the effects of poverty on education disappear....

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Should We Teach All Children How to Code?

"Hour of Code" received a great boost when the commander-in-chief of the most powerful country became a "coder-in-chief". This was part of the the Computer Science Education Week which run from December 8 through 14. Last Monday, both President Obama and Vice President Biden participated in coding exercises with students.

Above photo captured from YouTube video

Vice President Joe Biden visits with students and is taught to write a line of code, during the "Hour of Code" event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
Even my son, a third grader at Mason Crest Elementary School, got a taste of how coding works. The school's website now even has links to coding activities designed for elementary school students:

Similar to what Obama and Biden were doing, my son needed to select line by line instructions to help Angry Red Bird find Silly Pig:

Above captured from code.org
By choosing instructions from the various blocks listed above, an assembly of steps is constructed. The above is then translated to a script that looks like this:

Above captured from code.org
I learned computer programming when I was already a senior in college, about thirty years ago. Of course, there were no Angry Birds yet at that time but I did manage to write a program that played five-card draw poker. This homework took me several days. First, I thought that it was really challenging to teach a computer on how to evaluate what was present in five cards. The program needed to check for four of a kind, flush, straight, full house, straight, three of a kind, two pairs, one pair, and a high card. To play multiple games, cards also needed to be shuffled. I also had to make sure that no card is drawn twice. All of these tasks seem straightforward to anyone who knows how to play poker, but I realized that for coding, I really needed to start from scratch. Before I started this homework, lessons in class were not as exciting as poker. One of the very first tasks we had to learn was to write a program that calculated the factorial. For instance, five factorial, written as 5!, is equal to 5 times 4 times 3 times 2 times 1, or 120. Seeing how this was done by our human mind made me realize that the task could be done by going through a loop. Specifically, in this case, one goes through a multiplication loop five times, 5 X 4 X 3 X 2 X 1. Thus, what I needed was a register that got updated each time it went through the loop. That register must be initially equal to one.  In addition, I needed another number that started from the number whose factorial I am trying to solve and each time that number went through a loop, it must decrease by one and should continue to go through the loop until it equaled one.

The following is an example of a code that solves the factorial:

In the example above, the program actually starts with 1 then 2 then 3 then 4 then 5, but it achieves the same thing, at the end, fac becomes 1 times 2 times 3 times 4 times 5, which is 120 or 5 factorial.

The above example illustrates a function, a task that has been defined and can be interpreted by a computer. Thus, not everyone really needs to write from scratch. Not everyone needs to define every single task. As soon as a function has been defined, it can be called by another program. It can be used by another program or task. Thus, what my son or President Obama has written:


is really a predefined function or command, no different from the function factorial() shown above. 

With the specific examples shown above, I think we are then better equipped to address the question raised in the title of this post, Should We Teach All Children How to Code? 

Well, apparently, Matthew Murray at ExtremeTech has already attempted to answer such question so I am simply going to treat his article as a "function" and rerun it on this post. His answer to which I concur is as follows:
The subjects that should be strictly enforced as part of a K-12 curriculum in this country are the general-use ones that, for the most part, already are. Everyday mathematics, up to and including algebra. History and current events, both world and American. Surveys of biology, chemistry, and physics, for understanding how and why the world works. Civics, because knowing what the government should (and should not) do, and the citizen’s role in society, is key to adulthood. And, of course, English, and as much of it as possible, so students possess the elemental tools they need for communication. Within all these subjects there needs to be a focus on imagination, logic, reasoning, and problem solving — from which everything else in life will eventually come. The rest is gravy. Without these basics, being a terrific chef, a terrific carpenter, or even a terrific programmer, is meaningless. 
In 2010, USA Today reported statistics from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment that showed that “out of 34 countries, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.” These are the problems we need to fix first. Once we do, and once our kids are competitive and commanding in these root areas, then and only then should we worry about whether programming needs to be given higher priority. Until then, and perhaps even after, helping kids understand what computers are, what computers are capable of, and where we can fit into the grand scheme of technology, is a good idea. Provided we still teach them how to make omelets and picture frames, too.

Monday, December 15, 2014

How Should Teachers Teach?

This question is in fact difficult to address in a well designed experiment. The method of instruction is only one of many factors that may influence learning. Intimately related to how a teacher teaches is teacher quality. Another factor is the quality of learning materials. And I would guess that with the proper controlled conditions, the conclusions may be similar to what Slavin found when examining how the medium of instruction affects learning:

The findings of the present study reinforce the frequently stated conclusion that what matters most in the education ... is the quality of instruction, not the language of instruction... Schools may choose to teach ... in either their native language or English for many reasons, including cultural, economic, or political rationales. Yet the data from this experiment do not support the claims that this choice is crucial for ultimate learning of English or Spanish reading.
-Reading and Language Outcomes of a Five-Year Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education, Slavin et al. 2010

I am afraid that it is a lot of work and in the end, the findings will be similar to what is found regarding the medium of instruction. With regard to teaching math, a group at the American Institutes of Research actually took the daunting task of examining how the method of teaching affect learning outcomes in mathematics. To remove the effect of teacher quality, the paper focuses on twenty two highly regarded teachers in New York and six New England states.
To read the entire report, please click here.
The two methods of teaching placed side by side in the above study are: Traditional versus Student-Centered. Not surprisingly, the first thing that the study finds out is that for highly regarded teachers in math, this is not really black and white. The teachers use both but one may still group the teachers into two sets: those who employ more traditional approaches and those who spend more time on student-centered instruction. The mode of instruction appears to be a spectrum and teachers pick whatever they think is most effective as dictated by the topic being taught. In fact, as the level of mathematics advances, teachers tend to choose the traditional approach more.
Above copied from "An Up-Close Look at Student-Centered Math Teaching and Its Effects on Learning: A Study of Highly Regarded High School Teachers and Their Students"
The study also provides specific examples of learning materials. The one shown below is an example of an activity that is student-centered:

Above copied from "An Up-Close Look at Student-Centered Math Teaching and Its Effects on Learning: A Study of Highly Regarded High School Teachers and Their Students"
What should be evident here is that student-centered instruction like the traditional way requires good materials. The above shows two works, both are wrong, but one got the correct answer fortuitously. In Lincoln's method, the substitution should have led to the following if done correctly:
5(-3-y) - y = -15
-15 - 5y - y = -15
-6y = 0
Luckily for Lincoln, having the right number of y's does not matter since it is equal to zero. Claire, on the other hand, is not that fortunate since x is not equal to zero so one really has to get its coefficient correctly:
5x - (-3-x) = -15
6x = -18
x = -3
Student-centered instruction requires good learning materials. And needless to say, it also demands quality instructors. One could just imagine the frustration of a pupil who is placed in a student-centered class without the scaffold he or she needs. It could be very frustrating especially if the instructor does not even understand what Lincoln or Claire did wrong....

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Computers and Learning

When I helped elementary schools in Paete, Laguna acquire computers for their classrooms, my main objective then was to provide access to the internet. It is true that computers in classrooms are required to teach students on how to use word processors and spreadsheets, and create publications and slide presentations. However, I am not quite sure if these skills are in fact appropriate for the early years of education when children are just starting to learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, as well as how to read and write. Pupils in the elementary years can still work with pencils, crayons, scissors and paper. And there is so much to learn even with these simple tools. The internet, on the other hand, is unique, in terms of the learning resources it provides. There are children books that are online. There are educational videos available with just a click on a mouse. More importantly, the internet is a place where teachers can share and learn from each other. With smart phones, the computer may not even be essential at this point if the purpose is accessing resources on the web.

Still, similar to the lingering myth of "learning styles", there is the belief that computers can enhance learning. And yes, perhaps, technology can, but it is probably in a way so different from what most people think it can. Enyedy of UCLA recently authored a research brief for the National Education Policy Center: ("Briefs published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) are blind peer-reviewed by members of its Editorial Review Board.")

The first paragraph alone of the executive summary is quite loaded and should be taken seriously:
There has been a renewed interest in and enthusiasm for online learning and computerized instruction. One gets a sense of déjà vu when reading today’s educational blogs and policy documents, which are recycling the same arguments for computerized instruction that appeared in the 1980s. But in the more than 30 years since the personal computer and computer-assisted instruction entered K-12 education, not much has changed. Computers are now commonplace in the classroom, but teaching practices often look similar, as do learning outcomes. This raises two questions: What has changed to get people excited about online learning? And is this revival of enthusiasm warranted?
In a simpler graphic manner, the research brief above summarizes what research has found with regard to how much computers have contributed to basic education:

Yes, it is a big fat zero. It is quite ironic and perhaps hard to believe especially with all the excitement that often comes with technology entering the classroom. Unfortunately, the reason why Enyedy thinks that technology has not really catalyzed a dramatic change in education is that computers have just replaced and not really transformed teaching and learning:

Enyedy therefore starts with the assumption that there is something wrong with the following formula of teaching: "I, we, you, where the teacher tells the student something, followed by a worked-out example gone over together, and ending with independent student practice."  There is ample research out there that shows that direct instruction, worked examples, and problem solving are in fact the most effective ways of teaching and learning. The real reason why computers have yet to contribute significantly to learning outcomes is that the computer has not enhanced the traditional way by which we teach and learn. My opinion is that the transformative role computers may play is facilitating the communication between teacher and a student, and among themselves. Concept mapping or tools that help teachers identify where a student is and thereby guides both teacher and pupil on what to do is definitely one area technology can enhance learning in the classroom. Teachers still need to reach out and learn that there are resources on the web shared by excellent educators.

Enyedy does provide a good overview of research that tackles the question of how computers have contributed to instructional efficacy. Most studies do attribute no gain in learning outcomes except for one: blended instruction, which combines online and face-to-face instruction. With this brief, Enyedy correctly reminds us to be especially wary of the "snake oil salesman" who touts the coming computers' (now it's the tablet or smartphone) revolution in education.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Are You a Quill or a Crayon? Differentiated Instruction in an Elementary School

At first glance, recognizing that "one size does not fit all" seems to be quite an attractive preamble to education. Addressing the students' needs, abilities, interests and preferences does seem reasonable in basic education. Thus, in an academically diverse classroom, it may sound logical to group students. It sounds logical until one watches a particular episode of Clarence, the one entitled Average Jeff. In that episode, an assessment was made in order to group students. The two groups are called quill and crayon. If a student is deemed a quill, that student ends up with a group of students shown below:

If the student gets labeled as a crayon, that student lands in a classroom like the one shown below:

The quills receive higher quality instruction and greater opportunities while the crayons do not. Of course, opposition to differentiated instruction can not be purely based on a cartoon like Clarence. It is only research that can really settle this issue. There are previous studies summarizing the research in this area authored by Slavin of Johns Hopkins University. One is for elementary schools while the other is for secondary schools. Both are quite old (at least twenty years ago) and evidence supporting ability grouping is very weak. There is, however, one recent research paper (October 2014) in this area published in the journal Gifted Child. The paper authored by a team of education researchers from University of Connecticut, Allegheny College, Ball State University, and Colorado State University, has the following abstract:


Despite the potential of differentiated curricula to enhance learning, limited research exists that documents their impact on Grade 3 students of all ability levels. To determine if there was a difference in achievement between students involved in 16 weeks of predifferentiated, enriched mathematics curricula and students using their district’s curricula, we conducted a multisite cluster-randomized control trial with 43 schools in 12 states. A series of three-level models, using pre- and postachievement test data, failed to show a main effect for treatment, but the results suggested a treatment by achievement-level interaction that was moderated by the achievement level of the school. As a result, the highest achieving students in the lower achieving schools seemed to receive the greatest benefit from the treatment curricula. An analysis of researcher-developed unit tests revealed that treatment students successfully learned and applied the curricula’s challenging mathematics. Thus, using the predifferentiated and enriched mathematics curricula with heterogeneous ability students appeared to “do no harm”—students who completed the treatment curricula did as well as their control counterparts, on average. Evidence of its achievement-related benefits is more ambiguous; however, the findings do suggest some benefits for the highest achieving students in lower achieving schools.

The following table illustrates how much differentiated instruction differs from the traditional method in terms of learning outcome as measured by a post test:

The above shows how students have been grouped according to an initial assessment or pretest. These students have been divided randomly into two groups - one group receives differentiated instruction (Treatment) and and the other group stays with a traditional mode of instruction (Control). The differences across all groups are really quite small. In fact, for students who are deemed challenged at the beginning, those in the control group score a bit higher than those in the treatment group.

The results of the above study although much more recent are in fact not significantly different from what Slavin found more than twenty years ago. At least, it is comforting that differentiated instruction apparently does no harm. One must keep in mind, however, that these studies are controlled such that quality in instruction is not different between the two. In addition, "Does no harm" unfortunately does not take into account opportunity loss. It is useful to reiterate here what was mentioned previously in another post in this blog. It was a citation from a work by Rohrer and Pashler (Rohrer, D. and Pashler, H. (2012), Learning styles: where’s the evidence?. Medical Education, 46: 634–635. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x):
  • Whereas modern medicine owes much of its success to evidence-based treatments, most instructional techniques have not been subjected to empirical scrutiny.
  • At first blush, style-based instruction seems to be supported by a large empirical literature.
  • Our search of the literature on learning styles revealed that the appropriate design was used in only a handful of studies.
  • There exist a smattering of positive findings with unknown effect sizes that are eclipsed by a much greater number of published failures.
  • There presently is no empirical justification for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles
Rohrer and Pashler concluded, 
"In summary, there presently is no empirical justification for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles. Educators should instead focus on developing the most effective and coherent ways to present particular bodies of content, which often involve combining different forms of instruction, such as diagrams and words, in mutually reinforcing ways. Given the costs of assessing students’ supposed learning styles and offering differentiated instruction, this should come as good news to educators at all levels, from kindergarten through medical school."
Differentiated instruction demands a lot. It requires good and regular assessment tools. Having several groups in one classroom attend to different activities, projects or problems requires more in terms of classroom management. These requirements often translate to having more than one teacher in one classroom.

It is indeed true as shown by older studies as well as in the most recent study cited above that high performing students somewhat benefit from differentiated instruction. Unfortunately, this is probably due not to differentiated instruction. Oftentimes it is brought about by placing better resources (better teachers and learning materials) in front of these students.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"K to 12: Producing Uneducated Filipinos"

With the problems basic education in the Philippines currently faces, the curriculum is really the last place to look for solutions. There are other factors, some obviously more important than a set of standards or "wish list". The physical and social well being of children, parental involvement, quality of teachers, learning materials, classrooms, and facilities are factors that can heavily influence learning. While ignoring these other important factors, to top it all, the new DepEd K+12 curriculum is not even good. The following is an article recently authored by Jose R. Gullas. In this article, Gullas first strays away from what is truly pertinent to education but in the end drives home what is basically wrong with DepEd's K+12. The article,  K to 12: Producing uneducated Filipinos, is posted here in its entirety without permission from neither the author nor the Philippine Star:

K TO 12: Producing uneducated Filipinos

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Do Not Isolate - Encouraging a Love for Reading

In the previous article, "How to Make a Child Hate Reading", Alfie Kohn's 2010 article, "How to Create Nonreaders", is revisited. Kohn enumerates ways by which schools may in fact take away the love for reading from young children. One of those ways is isolation:
Isolate them. I’ve been in the same book group for 25 years. We read mostly fiction, both classic and contemporary, at the rate of almost a book a month. I shudder to think how few novels I would have read over that period, and how much less pleasure (and insight) I would have derived from those I did manage to read, without the companionship of my fellow readers. Subscribers to this journal are probably familiar with literature circles and other ways of helping students to create a community of readers. You’d want to avoid such innovations – and have kids read (and write) mostly on their own -- if your goal were to cause them to lose interest in what they’re doing.
Mason Crest Elementary School, the school where both my son and daughter attend, seems to address this area quite well. In a recent set of photos posted in the school's Facebook page. I could see pictures of my son and daughter reading:

My son is in third grade and my daughter is in kindergarten, but for this special session, both groups are in one classroom, acting as "reading buddies". Great job! Mason Crest.

Monday, December 8, 2014

How to Make a Child Hate Reading

My son who is now eight years old and currently in third grade still asks me to read a book before he goes to sleep at night. Right now, he is a big fan of Stone Rabbit and we have been reading (four times as of last night) Dragon Boogie. In addition to our right before bed reading, my son has to read on his own for about thirty minutes each day. Unlike the bed reading, it takes quite some prodding to get him to do this daily assignment.

I remember an old article  by Alfie Kohn, published about four years ago in the English Journal. Kohn wrote, "I’d like to begin my contribution to an issue of this journal whose theme is “Motivating Students” by suggesting that it is impossible to motivate students." In this article, Kohn enumerates the number of ways teachers can kill the love of reading in children. Here is the list:
  • Quantify their reading assignments.
  • Make them write reports.
  • Isolate them.
  • Focus on skills.
  • Offer them incentives.
  • Prepare them for tests.
  • Restrict their choices.
At bedtime, my son and I have neither predefined reading time nor number of pages to read. We read only as much as we want. There is no quiz right before my son sleeps and no questions about what we just read, but both of us are welcomed to give a comment or two at the end. And of course, we are not isolated as we read together right before we sleep.

The following is a copy of the entire article of Kohn. It is certainly worth a read.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Texting Helps Young Children Read

Yes, the title is misleading. But it is no different from the title of the news article in Ozy. At least, the title can perhaps draw your attention. A different title which states more clearly what the research finding is about may not be as attractive.

Above copied from Ozy
The above news item shares the results of a study performed by Stanford researchers, York and Loeb:

During a week, parents receive three text messages. On Monday, the message is a "fact" text, which usually describes an opportunity to help a young mind develop a skill necessary for learning. On Wednesday, the message is a "tip" text, which provides a parent a simple lesson or activity that is related to the "fact" described in the previous message. And on Friday, a "growth" text" is delivered, which gives an extension of the lesson or activity. Here are specific examples of text messages shared by York and Loeb in their paper:

Here is another example:

Obviously, texting here is simply used as a medium to increase parental involvement in the education of a child. Texting allows for frequent messaging. This can be easily orders of magnitude more frequent than parent-teacher conferences. The messages are short and the likelihood that these would get the attention of parents is quite high. And the results are significant. As the above abstract states, learning gains of 0.21 to 0.34 standard deviations are observed. These improvements are equivalent to hiring stellar teachers (84 percentile or above) in all kindergarten classrooms. Parental involvement makes a huge difference in the early years.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Higher Standards Do Not Necessarily Mean Better Learning

Raise the bar and students will automatically rise to the challenge. If this is true then education reform is indeed easy. One simply has to write a new curriculum with greater demands. One may start teaching quantum mechanics in kindergarten. Of course, this could be also viewed as an extreme and inappropriate. But take, for example, a milder reform: Require every student to take algebra in 8th grade. This is what the state of California has done which enables us to see what "raising the bar" actually does in real life.

The following paper is published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis:

 Aiming High and Falling Short: California’s
Eighth-Grade Algebra-for-All Effort
Thurston Domina
University of California, Irvine
Andrew McEachin
North Carolina State University
Andrew Penner
University of California, Irvine
Emily Penner
Stanford University

The United States is in the midst of an effort to intensify middle school mathematics curricula by enrolling more 8th graders in Algebra. California is at the forefront of this effort, and in 2008, the state moved to make Algebra the accountability benchmark test for 8th-grade mathematics. This article takes advantage of this unevenly implemented policy to understand the effects of curricular intensification in middle school mathematics. Using district-level panel data from all California K–12 public school districts, we estimate the effects of increasing 8th-grade Algebra enrollment rates on a 10th-grade mathematics achievement measure. We find that enrolling more students in advanced courses has negative average effects on students’ achievement, driven by negative effects in large districts.

A drawing perhaps drives the message from the above study more effectively, so here it is:

An increase in enrollment in Algebra by grade 8 students leads to lower scores in the math exam administered years later at grade 10. The decrease is about 0.05 - 0.07 of the standard deviation. This drop in the score is equivalent to about 15% of the gap shown below: (about 5 points in the NAEP Math Exam)

Fifteen percent of the gap, thirty one points, is about five. How big is 5 points in the NAEP exam. Here is a graph showing the average NAEP Math scores for the years 2004, 2008 and 2012:

Thus, 5 points summarize how much math scores have improved nationally in the past eight years. This is the result of "raising the bar" - It can do the opposite. It can in fact throw a country eight years back. Higher standards do not necessarily mean better learning. Higher standards require good implementation and most of all, the question of appropriateness needs to be seriously addressed.